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Bat For Lashes
The Haunted Man Matthew Lindsay , October 26th, 2012 07:46

It's a risky business comparing female artists to one another, shoehorning an artist into a limited referential framework due to, as Tori Amos once noted, there being "too many tits in the room". Yet the music Bat for Lashes makes seems to draw quite consciously on this genealogy, just as The Haunted Man is informed by Natasha Khan's tracing of her own bloodline. Ancestry, dreams and geography figure prominently here, supplanting the 'sword and sorcery' miscellany of 2006's Fur And Gold and 2009's Two Suns' more earthbound lyrical viewpoint.

Where the last two records were housed in slightly forced boho dress up, The Haunted Man's Ryan McGinley portrait of Khan carrying a man across her shoulders strips away the excesses. The image proffers an antidote to airbrushed beauty doll gloss, a tip of the hat to Patti Smith and PJ Harvey's unvarnished sexuality. It's flummoxed some critics (Will Hodgkinson in The Times), a testament to our culture's languishing in a mid-point between the prudish and the pornographic. Likewise, The Haunted Man's sound pares down the maximalism of previous albums to reveal a more confident, crystalline production. Regular co-producer David Kosten is on board once more but hit-friendly maestro Dan Carey (Hot Chip/ Kylie Minogue) is present too, although mercifully not in a desperate bid for chart-bound glory.

It's just that the strokes are broader, the focus sharper and the noodling more purposeful (her vocals are still often daubed in reverb but it's more delicately applied). Two Suns' Ivor Novello-winning single, 'Daniel', unleashed the pop sensibility in Khan's arsenal; Stevie Nick's 'Stand Back' woven into a modern Timbaland/freak-folk tapestry. The Haunted Man allows such songcraft to breathe on Bat for Lashes' most assured set yet.

Which is surprising given its somewhat arduous gestation. Returning to Brighton, deflated after touring Two Suns in 2010, Khan experienced bouts of creative drought and considered giving up music altogether, to revisit her original profession, teaching. Yet the songs started to come back, often fully formed. After that she decamped to the Malibu home of her Twilight soundtrack collaborator Beck. He surfaces here on 'Marilyn' (other high profile guests include Portishead's Adrian Utley and former PJ Harvey cohort, Rob Ellis). The agony and ecstasy of process is alive in Bat For Lashes' music, her verses are often cagey and hesitant, opening out into unfettered jubilant choruses.

The comparisons with Kate Bush are simply too numerous to ignore: the keening harmonies and polyrhythmic wallop, harking back to an era when one drummer simply wasn't enough. Even the sleeve echoes Hounds Of Love's protector/hunter conflation. Some observers have criticized Khan for being too reliant on her axis of influence, most notably Kitty Empire in The Observer. But she comes off more like a kindred spirit than an epigone. Like Bush, Khan is unafraid of teetering on the ridiculous in pursuit of the sublime. Just as Molly Bloom's heightened experience of nature in Ulysses prompted Bush's The Sensual World, Khan finds a similar wellspring of inspiration from David Lean's 1970 Ryan's Daughter.

Specifically triggered by a scene where a married man feels the charge of the outside world while going to meet her soldier lover, the opening track 'Lilies' surges from an exclamation of euphoria ("thank God I'm alive!"). The song's constituent parts are 'vocal', succinct splashes of strings, electronics and guitars array a genuinely rousing curtain raiser. A similar certainty of purpose runs through the album like a silvery thread.

Occasionally the Bat for Lashes' formula is burnished to a sheen that veers close to self-parody, particularly the tribal drumming siren call of 'Horses in the Sun'. it still sounds lovely though, and is proof that Khan has honed a sound of her own to echo. Similarly, 'All Your Gold', 'Marilyn & A Wall' filter post-Goldfrapp electronica through myriad tricks that never fight to be heard: pizzicato guitars, buzzing synths/samplers, pounding beats and cavernous ambience. All of them infectious, idiosyncratic.

Most striking of all, 'Laura', a co-write with Justin Parker of Lana Del Rey renown, strips away the technicolour gloss of 'Video Games', leaving only that inexorable build and slow-burn. The piano and gentle orchestrations, apparently an overdubbed demo, are a stark backdrop to a morning-after ode to a friend, bleary-eyed and weary from the last night's excesses but fierce in its unquestioning devotion. Right down to its namesake, it evokes the intimacies of bygone singer-songwriters. The vocal delivery, sliding from hushed caress to tremulous octave soaring, is a revelation, an exquisitely measured riposte to talent show barn-storming.

An autodidact, Khan honed her instrumental skills through improvisation rather than lessons and previous songs sometimes fumble towards their destinations. On Fur & Gold's 'Sad Eyes', the sense of a writer navigating their way around the melody added to the poignancy but occasionally it left her more widescreen ambitions feeling slightly embryonic. The Haunted Man strives to achieve a more fully realized sense of the epic, enhanced by its de-cluttered aesthetic. Lavish but light on its feet, 'Oh Yeah''s Joe Meek-style otherworldly dimensions deploy flanged guitar, piano trills a male choir and hip hop beats. In an age of pop music littered with contrived mash-ups, Khan fuses old and new with the skill of a collagist par excellence, owing as much to acolyte Beck as she does Bush.

The album's orchestral arrangements were divided between Sally Herbert and John Metcalfe. 'Winter Fields' neatly packs tympani rolls and woodwind/string interplay into its searing brevity. Virtually an aural topography of the Sussex coast: a sense of place as evocative as Vaughn Williams' Lark Ascending. Khan's sky-strafing emotions strike enough discordant notes to put distance from the hollow-vaulted Anglo-anthems of a Coldplay or Florence Welch.

The title track is a phantasmagoria of ambient blips, martial drumming, strings and a soldier's choir. Joining the dots on seemingly disparate strands, it's an apt backdrop for the song's emotional dislocation. A world of men returning from war, scarred and incommunicative, to their spouses: a microcosm for the yawning chasm between lovers. If Khan is running up a similar hill to her forebears, she still exudes a peculiar individuality. Her guileless candour and pick-and-mix pop panto seem to occupy a rarefied terrain, equal parts sincerity and sophistication.

By the closing 'Deep Sea Diver''s oceanic drift of kosmische lunar synths, you get the feeling Khan has truly emerged as one of modern pop's most thrilling voices. Steeped in references? Perhaps, but Khan's own spirit of invention and emotional wisdom are through lines which make The Haunted Man a singular journey.